Trump in Europe: A Reason for Concern

U.S. President’s first visit to Europe left a bitter taste in the mouth of many EU leaders

The mainstream media such as The Guardian, POLITICO and The New York Times have all put forward similar titles, paying particular attention to Trump’s body language during his meetings with European leaders.

Yet, in this article, I will not try to recycle the mainstream media rhetoric and focus on petty mannerisms and trivial matters as a mean to discredit Trump. The aim will be to examine Trump’s first visit to Europe from a more analytical and substantiated level. As before, the analysis will aim to establish an objective point of view of Trump’s visit to Europe.

Trump and the EU – a mutual dislike

There is little point in emphasizing that Trump and the EU share a mutual distrust of each other from the very beginning. EU leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, clearly favored Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton in the Presidential race. It’s not very hard to see why. Clinton would have been a safe choice for the EU and its current ruling establishment, as somebody who clearly represented a continuity with Obama’s policies.

This is one of the reasons why Trump’s election caused serious discomfort among the EU leaders. In the EU, Trump’s election victory was regarded potentially harmful for US/EU relations, and Trump was seen as politically inexperienced and unpredictable leader.

As if that was not enough, Trump himself exacerbated their fears with his statements about the EU, Merkel and NATO. Not only these statements were highly unorthodox for a U.S. President, they also came in the sensitive time for the EU, when the bloc is faced with a myriad of challenges, the rise of Euroskepticism, stagnant economic growth, terrorists threats and problematic relations with Putin’s Russia.

The EU’s distrust of Trump has been somewhat mitigated by Vice President’s Pence visit shortly after Trump’s Presidential inauguration in January. Pence reassured the EU of Trump’s commitment to good relations with Brussels and his support for NATO.

Regardless, the EU still found it hard to put trust in Trump, whose foreign policy during his first months in office seemed confused at best and completely incoherent at worst.

After a string of victories of pro-EU forces in elections in Austria, Netherlands and France, the EU felt a bit more confident, and Trump was faced with extremely complicated problems in his own yard.

Trump’s Message to the EU

Following his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump participated at a NATO leaders meeting in Brussels. His bearing in the EU’s capital was markedly less cordial than during his stay in Riyadh and Jerusalem. In Saudi Arabia, Trump did what he does best – negotiated a true business deal with the Saudi royal family worth billions of dollars.

The US influence in the Middle East has been undermined during the Obama Presidency, and Washington found itself marginalized as a result of strong Russo-Iranian alliance in Syria. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel was in part, an attempt of Washington to restore support of its key two allies in the region, both extremely distrustful of Obama administration policies. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel was to reassure the local elites in U.S. support for their cause, as well as re-establish U.S. influence in the region.

The dynamics of Trump’s visit to Brussels were completely different. Instead of a message of peace, all that Trump had to offer to EU and NATO leaders was ‘you need to pay more’. It was hardly something new in Trump’s rhetoric, but he showed to the EU leaders that his administration will keep insisting on the issue of NATO spending.

Trump’s underlying message to U.S. European allies is that there is no free ride and that they will have to step up and pay for their defense. To make things even worse, Trump implicitly linked terrorism with immigration – a clear heresy to the ears of European leaders.

The EU Army

For decades after WWII, European countries, those in the West at first, and many from Central and Eastern areas of the continent after the collapse of USSR, found themselves firmly under NATO’s defensive umbrella.

As the threat from the USSR gradually subsided, European NATO allies committed less and less of their GDP to defense. Most European NATO allies spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on their military and many of them have substantially reduced their military forces.

Recently, both Angela Merkel and the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron indicated that their countries will increase military spending. The question of Germany’s NATO payments was the main issue of Merkel’s meeting with Trump in the White House.

In addition, Brussels has put forward the idea of an EU army.

Merkel’s and Macron’s statements, as well as talk about an EU army are all signals of the increasing European concern that the days when they could safely divert all of their defense spending to social security are a thing of the past.

In it a matter of fact that the EU collectively, and almost all of its member states separately, had been used to following the U.S. lead during past decades. This became evident with the onset of Ukraine crisis and EU imposed sanctions on Russia, which clearly harmed the economy of several EU members states and caused discontent among German firms.

The EU has also adapted its energy interests to that of the U.S., with Brussels investing no small efforts to prevent Russia from building gas pipelines in Central and Southeastern Europe. In this regard, Brussels has shown clear loyalty to Washington and its interests in Europe.

Trump’s election triumph in many ways changed the dynamics of U.S./EU relations. The renewed animosity between Moscow and Washington, tensions in the Middle East and Ukraine, have all put the EU under increased strain.

The lack of support from Washington may prompt the sclerotic, inert EU elites, to take more concrete action in defense sphere. The initiatives to create the EU army must be viewed in this context. In the end, Brussels may well be forced to adopt a more independent approach when it comes to European security and foreign policy.

Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA